Fairy tales could be older than you ever imagined Could your favorite fairy tale be older than previously thought? (Thinkstock)
Fairy tales could be older than you ever imagined
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A few hundred years ago, fairy tale auteurs like the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault helped bring magical tales of princesses, evil ogres, dark forests, weird spells and thwarted love into the storybooks and to the bedsides of children. But how old are the tales they transcribed? A study suggests that their origins go all the way back to prehistory.
 
The new study has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. In it, a folklorist and anthropologist say that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than originally thought. Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old. This contradicts previous speculation. It was thought that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.
 
It's pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are if you use simple historical data. The tales were passed down orally. They can be almost impossible to unwind. That is, if you use a historian or anthropologist's traditional toolbox. The team borrowed from biology, instead. The team used a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists. They traced the roots of 275 fairy tales. 

The biologists used complex trees of language, population and culture.
Using the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales, a kind of uber index that breaks fairy tales down into groups like "the obstinate wife learns to obey" and "partnership between man and ogre," the team tracked the presence of the tales in 50 Indo-European language-speaking populations. They were able to find the ancestries of 76 tales. They tracked them backward using language trees.
 
As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots.  Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages. That was more than 5,000 years ago. A tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.
 
The findings might confirm the long-disregarded theory of fairy tale writer Wilhelm Grimm. He thought that all Indo-European cultures shared common tales. But not everyone is certain that the study proves fairy tales are that old. As Chris Samoray writes for Science News, other folklorists are finding fault with the study. It insists that The Smith and the Devil dates back to the Bronze Age. That's a time before a word for "metalsmith" is thought to have existed.

Are the days of using historical records and written clues to learn more about a culture's oral history numbered? No way, says the research team. "Of course, this does not diminish the value of excavating the literary record for evidence about the origins and development of oral tales," they write. Researchers will still keep looking for the origins of fairy tales in books, too. In the meantime, it might be time to pick up that once-familiar storybook and dream about who told the same tales thousands of years ago.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How can these stories be so old?
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COMMENTS (20)
  • ericw-6-bar
    5/19/2016 - 06:36 p.m.

    The stories can be old because they are passed down from possibly hundreds of generations. If a father told a son a story, then one day he would grow up and tell his son and this would go on for thousands of years.

  • seans-2-bar
    5/19/2016 - 09:26 p.m.

    These fairy tales could exist for this elongated time because they were well known and passed down orally for thousands of years. These stories were indebted to a group of people who would care for these stories and always remember their significance and meaning to the certain group. I was astounded that some these stories could last so long .

  • sheilah-6-bar
    5/19/2016 - 10:34 p.m.

    Stories can be really old. The article states,"It's pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are if you use simple historical data. The tales were passed down orally. They can be almost impossible to unwind. That is, if you use a historian or anthropologist's traditional toolbox. The team borrowed from biology, instead. The team used a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists. They traced the roots of 275 fairy tales." People learn most fairytales from family. The stories were passed down till someone wrote about it. Stories could be made thousands of years ago but wrote and published 30 years ago. I found this article interesting because I did not know stories were thousands of years old.

  • matthewp-6-bar
    5/19/2016 - 11:22 p.m.

    These stories can be so old because scientist figured out from a language tree that they were very old. These stories were passed down in the beginning by speaking not writing. This is shown in the article by," The tales were passed down orally." My opinion about this article is I think it is crazy that stories were able to survive generations and many years before people wrote them down.

  • caitlynk-2-bar
    5/19/2016 - 11:41 p.m.

    These stories can be so old because it is very hard to tell the age of a fairy tale because fairy tales were told orally before ever getting on paper. A fairy tale has to go through a lot of analyzing and language trees in order to get a relatively close guess to the age of the tale. This article was interesting because it is amazing that stories that are so old are still told today. This article surprised me because it is weird that something meant for showing how organisms evolved is used to tell the age of a story.

  • carlosp-6-bar
    5/19/2016 - 11:51 p.m.

    These stories can be so old because all the people that originally heard it told it to there children who told there children who told there children and so on. So this would make every generation hear these stories and never know where it originally came from. And while everyone tells these stories they spread and become more popular. This is stated in the last paragraph."Are the days of using historical records and written clues to learn more about a culture's oral history numbered? No way, says the research team. "Of course, this does not diminish the value of excavating the literary record for evidence about the origins and development of oral tales," they write. Researchers will still keep looking for the origins of fairy tales in books, too. In the meantime, it might be time to pick up that once-familiar storybook and dream about who told the same tales thousands of years ago."
    I think this paragraph is cool because i thought these stories where fairly modern but obviously not and I was really surprised when they said they are dated back as far as 6,000 years ago.

  • maggiec-3-bar
    5/20/2016 - 12:21 a.m.

    These stories can be so old because they have been passed down through many generations. In paragraph three it says "The tales were passed down orally. They can be almost impossible to unwind." Over thousands of years stories have been passed down by people telling them to other people and then that person told someone else, etc. Most stories back then weren't written down on paper or anything which is why its so cool that some stories are still present today even after so many years. I enjoyed this article because I think it's interesting how so many stories have been passed down through so many generations of people.

  • genevieveb-6-bar
    5/20/2016 - 01:06 a.m.

    These stories can be so old because tales evolve and change over time and are orally passed down from generation to generation. In the article's middle, it states,"The tales were passed down orally. They can be almost impossible to unwind" (paragraph 3). Since these stories were told by voice instead of print, many anthropologists could not trace the tales back to their farther than the typed copy, including Hans Christen Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. The stories are older than people imagined because of the way tales change and the way the stories had been passed down to one another.

    I found this article interesting because, as a Disney, "Once Upon A Time", and all-around fairy tale fan, I indulge in learning about the source material of famously adapted tales such as Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Bean Stalk (two stories of the many told in the ABC drama, "Once Upon A Time").

  • mayaw-6-bar
    5/24/2016 - 12:17 a.m.

    These stories can be so old because they are passed down from generation to generation. In paragraph three, the article states that, "It's pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are if you use simple historical data. The tales were passed down orally." Paper would be hard to preserve for thousands of years, so the tales were passed down orally. Therefore, these stories can be so old because they are passed down from generation to generation. I liked this article because I learnt something new. The new thing that I learnt is where fairy-tales and old stories originated from.

  • angelinat-3-bar
    5/24/2016 - 12:29 a.m.

    These stories can be so old because many stories are passed down through generations. The article says, "The tales were passed down orally." This shows that many of the stories were told from one generation to another. I was interested in this article because I have read many of the stories that the article mentions. I was surprised to find that a these stories were so old.

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